Missouri company supplies leather and other custom cut parts, like sweatbands. And they offer leatherwork classes.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Sometimes, what is small, nearly invisible and seemingly insignificant, is what holds things all together.
Such is the case with the humble sweatband, that important but little regarded band of leather or other fabric sewn inside the base of a hat’s crown. Various kinds of hats and caps, be they Stetsons, fedoras or other stylish chapeaus, depend upon the support provided by this simple but ingenious item.
One person quite well versed in sweatband lore is leather worker Tucker Hancock. After all, the manufacture of sweatbands makes up a sizeable portion of the work done at Fern Thatcher Co., of Gallatin, Missouri, a leather supply and manufacturing business that he and his parents, Brent and Tina Hancock, purchased together in July 2021.
“A sweatband provides stability and comfort for the customer who wears the hat,” Tucker explained. “Right now, we’re doing over 3,000 sweatbands per week on average. Our customers range from small hatters to larger hatters. We work with about 50 to 70 hatters.”
“We supply to hatters all over the country,” his dad, Brent, added. And, Tina noted that they also have customers in other countries, such as Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand. “Our leather sweatbands can go inside hats made of all kinds of different materials, like fur, felt, beaver and straw,” she said. Besides the three owners who work full time, the family-run business has three part-time employees.
As Tucker briefly described how a seemingly simple leather sweatband is manufactured, it became clear that making one correctly has its own parameter of perfection. “We cut out the leather sweatband, made primarily from U.S. bridle leather. We also make some from goatskin or roan. We sew it with an e-stitch, the type that hatters like on their sweatbands,” he said, of the simple, yet strong cover stitch.
The stitching process attaches a reeded tape, or reeder’s tape, onto the leather sweatband. “The reed is like oversized fishing line,” he explained. “The sewing machine takes the line and sews it onto a thin, black material called tape. It sews the reed, the tape and the leather sweatband all together at the same time. Most customers like the sweatband reeded and want us to sew the reed onto the sweatband. Some of the larger hatters like to do the reeding themselves. They have their own e-stitch machine, sew their reed and sew the sweatband into the hat. They do those steps themselves,” he said.
The company’s sweatbands come in various colors, such as natural and chestnut antique. To find out more about that product and the different colors offered, check out their Etsy shop, under Fern Thatcher Co. Later, this information will be available at the company’s business website, which is still in process, Tucker said.
Fern Thatcher was formerly owned by leather supplier Stuart Blattner and was based in St. Joseph, Missouri. “We used to buy from our supplier. Now, we are the supplier, supplying leather to other makers in the western trade industry,” Brent said. “We’re not only supplying leather; we also manufacture custom cut parts, like the sweatbands and other things of leather such as a leather piece that saddle pad makers stitch onto their saddle pads.”
“He was ready to retire,” Tucker said of the company’s former owner. “Fourteen semi-truckloads later, we were able to move the business to Gallatin,” a roughly 57-mile-trip. At one time in its history, Blattner’s leather company had over 60 employees. They made cut parts for a golf company, backpacks and berets for the military.
To Tucker, the family decision to purchase the leather business and make the big move was the right one. “It happened at a perfect time. A few months before purchasing the business, I transferred from active duty in the Air Force to the Air Force Reserves. While in the Air Force, my wife and I had our own leather goods business — items with a military theme that we sold online. My parents had their own leather shop. We combined forces to purchase the business. Now we’re all together.”
Another plus, “We were able to get all the former shop’s leather equipment with the purchase of the business. We have all that to expand with,” he said, citing for example, an e-stitch machine, an e-stamping machine, a leather splitter and a skiving machine. “We have several hydraulic clicker machines,” Brent noted.
“The tools give us the ability to mass produce cut leather parts,” Tucker pointed out. “The leather that we bring in here is made in the United States. The good thing about that is we’re not waiting for leather to get here on a ship. U.S. cow leather is used in the tanning process. The beef industry is well cared for in the U.S. We’re getting a high-quality product in the hides.”
Besides cowhide, the company carries oil tan, veg-tan, chap and metallic leathers. Their main leather source is S.B. Foot Tanning Co. of Red Wing, Minnesota. “We like the quality of their product. We are one of their market distributors,” he said.
AT THE WORKSHOP
The family workshop is located on the first floor of a 6,000-square-foot, 100-year-old building in downtown Gallatin, the county seat of Daviess County. Tucker and his wife, Lauren Hancock, and their three children, live outside the Gallatin downtown area, in a lakeside community called Lake Viking. His parents live about two miles from the workshop.
“We own the building. One side of the space functions as a warehouse; the other side is for manufacturing products,” Tucker said. “It was an old grocery store, back in the day. Mainly, it’s where we warehouse and distribute our leather. We’re bringing in leather and sending it out. We can sell one side of leather, up to a pallet. We can handle from small to larger orders.”
According to the Fern Thatcher website, the company also can mass produce any size and shape of leather cut out that is needed. For instance, they do cut parts for the 2”x 4” leather name tags that go on military flight suits. And, they can gold foil or brand customer logos on leather products.
These days, the family’s team spirit seems to be in high gear. In the one year since the purchase, “Tucker has been able to double our customers, when it comes to hatters. On the sweatband side, that’s a 20 to 25 percent increase,” Tina said.
Regarding both the leather and sweatband sides of the business, sales appear to be split 50/50, between male and female buyers,” Tucker added. “It’s an industry that appeals to both. Men and women are making saddle pads, chaps, dog collars and belts.”
Currently, word of mouth has been the main way of attracting new business. “Our goal is to expand our online presence,” he said.
HOMETOWN LEATHER WORKS
“It’s a family affair,” Tina said of the Hancock’s jointly owned business. “Until we purchased Fern Thatcher last year, with Tucker, Brent and I were not making sweatbands. We were making Bible and journal covers, wallets, purses, key chains and bookmarks — small leather goods. We used all kinds of leather.”
Today, many of their small leather goods are now displayed, along with Tucker’s, in a retail kiosk located 10 miles south of Gallatin, in Hamilton, Missouri, a town with a colorful commercial history. For one, it is the site of the boyhood home of J.C. Penney, who founded the large retail store under that name. It’s also home to the popular Missouri Star Quilt Co. “People come from all over the country, and world, to Hamilton. It’s considered Quilt Town, USA,” Tina said. The Missouri Star Quilt Co. has welcomed the Hancock family’s leathercrafting expertise and idea for the classes. “They brought us in. They wanted us to come and set up down there, so we could do the leathercraft classes.”
The ongoing classes are offered in the back half of the original, J.C. Penney store. The enterprise, which began in mid-March of this year, is called Hometown Leatherworks. The response so far has been positive. “People are super excited and enjoy learning a leathercraft. I’m there for three hours, three or four times a week. We’re busy every day. We do DIY (do-it-yourself) classes and ‘make-and-take’ projects,” she said.
Leatherwork classes vary between 10 to 15 people per class. “As much as I can put in the room at one time!” she exclaimed. Her classes typically make small items, such as earrings, wristbands, coasters, key chains or wallets. Or, they might design a leather patch to be sewn on a cap or hat. “It’s fun, and we want you to come and sit and feel like you’re home,” she said enthusiastically.
Projects are kept simple and basic. “Instead of tooling leather, we teach people how to emboss the leather. Our projects take about 15 minutes. Some people like to do multiple projects. The majority of participants are women, but a good number of men are also interested. And, people can buy leather goods that we have handcrafted,” she said.
“Pre-cut leather is there for crafters to buy and we also make DIY kits,” Tucker added. “For instance, if someone is making a key chain, all key ring hardware associated with the project is made available. It depends upon the project.”
The Hancock family’s leathercrafting expertise and their idea for the classes were welcomed by the Missouri Star Quilt Co., she said. “They brought us in. They wanted us to come and set up down there, so we could do the leathercraft classes.”
Tina’s natural enthusiasm spills over. “It’s a blessing to work together. And, to leave a legacy for our grandchildren. It’s a joy to work together as a family. If you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life.”
FIND OUT MORE
Tucker, Brent & Tina Hancock
Fern Thatcher Co.
117 North Main Street Gallatin, MO 64640
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